Unreasonable Faith: A Humble Response to William Lane Craig

Posted by Clark Bates
March 29, 2017

Recently, Dr. William Lane Craig aired a podcast from his organization known as Reasonable Faith in defense of a sermon by North Point Community Church pastor, Andy Stanley.  The sermon in question was titled “The Bible Told Me So” from Stanley’s “Who Needs God” sermon series and was aired to no small amount of controversy last year.  Why, Dr. Craig has taken this long to discuss the sermon is unknown, presumably he’s been directly asked to or possibly his schedule has prevented him from approaching the subject until now.

What has drawn the ire of many theologians, post-Stanley, are various statements within the content of this particular sermon.  Stanley opens the sermon stating that,

“We sang this song. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know.’ What is the next line? Right! ‘For the Bible tells me so.’ And this is where our trouble began. It really did. This is where our trouble began. Because – don’t leave! – because the implication is (this is important!) the Bible is the reason we believe.”

He goes on to say,

“The problem with that is this. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, as the Bible goes so goes our faith. In other words, Christianity cannot survive if the Bible goes away. Christianity cannot survive if somehow every single part of the Bible isn’t absolutely true if the Bible is the foundation of our faith.”
And,

“When we discover or are told that perhaps there was no exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, that there is no historical evidence of that. When we are told in school and in graduate school that there is no evidence for a worldwide flood. When people point out apparent contradictions in the Bible. When in school we are told there is no way the Earth is six thousand years old; it is 4.5 or 4.55 billions years old and the universe is 14.5 billion years old. And all of a sudden the tension is around. The Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, but has said, science has said, the Bible says, science has said, the Bible says. All of a sudden there is this extraordinary tension.”

While not included in this sermon, during a follow up sermon of Pastor Stanley’s (on Christmas Eve no less) he states that you do not have to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian.  This is important as it relates to Dr. Craig’s recent podcast.

I should state at the outset that I am fond of Dr. Craig and the work that he does.  He is clearly a unique mind among all evangelicals and among his peers.  The work that Dr. Craig has done in advancing the Christian worldview in the realms of science and academia is certainly unparalleled.  I even belong to a Reasonable Faith Apologetics Group that meets monthly in the St. Louis area.  That being said, I cannot stand with either Pastor Stanley or Dr. Craig on this issue.  I am what is known as a “Presuppositional Apologist,” which means that I seek to defend the internal consistency of the Christian faith and worldview by means of the Bible itself.  Those who follow in the pattern of Pastor Stanley and Dr. Craig are often referred to as “Evidential Apologists” because they seek to reach a world for the Christian faith through evidences external to the biblical text.  Often these fields can, and should, overlap, but there is an increasingly-growing divide between them.  While this divide is frequently self-imposed (and wrongly so in my opinion), it will become even more so if statements such as Stanley’s and Dr. Craig’s continue.

Andy Stanley and the Sacrifice of the Sacred

Pastor Stanley’s sermon has already been exposed to a litany of rebuke, so I have no need to repeat that here.  It should be stated, and has been, that Stanley falsely equivocates a great deal in this message to the point of insulting many in the realm of biblical apologetics.  He begins by building a straw man of what it means to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture (something I have written on here) and then ridicules this position as being a child-like faith.  Of course, the depiction he gives is a child-like faith, but not one that is indicative of the biblical inerrantist.  Stanley even claims that Christians seem to be afraid of science, which is laughably ridiculous even from the evidentialist field of apologetics.  It is as if the pastor has never heard of the Discovery Institute, Reasons to Believe, Answers in Genesis, or the Creation Research Institute.  Knowing that this cannot actually be the case, I am left with the assumption that Pastor Stanley purposefully mischaracterizes Christianity for the sake of his message and expressed desire to reach the “unchurched” in his congregation.

Since this sermon, Pastor Stanley has written an article clarifying his doctrinal positions and reaffirming his belief in orthodox Christianity and the inerrancy of Scripture.  However, one has to ask why this article is even necessary if what he believes were reflected in what he preached?  In short, the attempts at damage control fall short of explaining the mounting disparity between Stanley’s profession and his preaching.  As a result, Stanley has been compared to the father of liberal theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher; something Dr. Craig adamantly rejects, but it must be clarified that Schleiermacher did not seek to destroy the Christian faith or abandon its core principles when he sought to remove the supernatural elements of the Scripture; he did so because he sincerely loved his faith and felt it was necessary to save Christianity from being lost to an increasingly skeptical generation.  I hope you see how that sounds familiar.

William Lane Craig and His Unquestioning Support

More specifically to the reason I am writing this today, is Dr. William Lane Craig’s recent Reasonable Faith podcast.  During his defense of Pastor Stanley, Dr. Craig makes several statements that are inconsistent, and, for the presuppositional apologist, bordering on reprehensible.  Because my relationship with Dr. Craig has been formative for me in the years of training I have received, it is very difficult for me to say this, but not nearly as difficult as it was to hear.

To begin, Dr. Craig says that, for men like Pastor Stanley and himself, it is important to separate Apologetics from Theology.  This is a completely incoherent statement.  The very word from which the practice of Christian “Apologetics” derives is found in 1 Peter 3:15 to define how a Christian is to defend that Christ is Lord.  This is a thoroughly theological position and it is the position from which even Dr. Craig defines what he does!  What’s more, the practice of evidential apologetics is to defend the reasonableness of the Christian worldview through various argumentations designed to defend the existence of God.  This is clearly a theological endeavor…by definition!  Therefore, to attempt to defend the diminishing of the Bible by separating the practice of Apologetics from the study of Theology is to create a completely vacuous schism and cannot be maintained under even the slightest scrutiny.

As a means of defending this position, Dr. Craig speaks of Pastor Stanley’s affirmation that the resurrection is the singularly necessary doctrine of the Christian faith that must be adhered to, and is proven by documentation that exist outside of and pre-date Scripture.  Being that this is an area that I lecture on quite regularly, I found this claim to be incredibly puzzling.  Not the claim that there are historical documents that support the belief in the resurrection external to the Scriptures, but that they pre-date them.  It is at this point that Dr. Craig mentions the ancient Christian creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

“What Andy Stanley is doing is pointing out that contemporary New Testament scholars (not apologists) have been able to identify the traditions or sources upon which the New Testament authors draw thereby closing even more narrowly the window between the original events and the time of the recording of those events.

One of the premier examples is Paul’s quotation of this ancient Christian formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 where he speaks of Christ’s dying for our sins, his burial, his being raised from the dead on the third day, and then his appearances to Peter, and to the twelve disciples. This tradition which Paul is quoting here has been dated to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. So these resurrection appearances, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus, are not late-developing legends that accrued generations or decades after Jesus was dead and buried. These are traditions that go right back to within five years of the events themselves, and are therefore of incredible historical value.”

I agree with everything that Dr. Craig states about this creed.  I use this example in every presentation I give regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But this creed would be completely unknown to us if it were not contained within the writings of Paul, which we find. . .in . . . the. . . . Bible!  Yes, the creed is older than Paul’s letter to Corinth, but it is only known to us because of its existence within that letter, and the actions of the earliest church to copy that letter and eventually collate them into what we now know as the New Testament Canon.  Because of this, it becomes nonsensical to state that we have historical documents regarding the resurrection that pre-date biblical claims and therefore need not appeal to the Bible!  Outside of this creed, the oldest attestations to the resurrection of Christ are the three Synoptic Gospels.  All other verification follows these accounts.

As part of a follow-up response, Dr. Craig agrees with Pastor Stanley that one need not affirm things like the flood of Noah nor the Exodus, nor the virgin birth.  In defense of this statement, Dr. Craig responds that a belief in these matters would be theological not apologetic, thus furthering his attempt to separate the two practices.  As I’ve already pointed out, this is an incoherent separation, but there is a deeper difficulty that arises from such statements.  Allow me to elaborate, using the examples of the Exodus and the virgin birth.

If the Exodus did not happen in history, then it is a lie.  We cannot play the game of using terms like “legend” or “cultural myth” that would be permissible in helping to establish the nation.  To affirm the Exodus, and all the circumstances contained within, when it did not actually take place, is to affirm a lie, and the Word of God is thereby lying.  On principle, we would then have to ask how much of the Bible is lying, and if this is the case, how can we believe anything it states? Pastor Stanley feels that this is a House of Cards style Christianity that must be jettisoned, but in his desire to save the faith he is creating a distorted Christianity that risks driving more away than it would bring back.  Pivotal to the Exodus narrative is the event of the Passover in which the angel of God kills the first-born child in every Egyptian home to force Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery.  To protect their own children from this catastrophe, the Jews are instructed to kill a spotless male lamb and paint the doorposts of their houses with its blood.  The blood of this spotless lamb will serve to protect them from the judgment of God and thus, the angel will “pass-over” their homes.

This is not merely some barbaric ancient ritual.  This is the foundational depiction in all of Scripture of the need for sacrificial atonement for sin.  It is the moment that sets the stage for the statement by the John the Baptist that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  It is the background for the death of Jesus on the eve of Passover and the need for a spotless or sinless Savior to redeem the world.  It is from the Exodus narrative that Paul builds his soteriology of God’s sovereign election and the sinful nature of mankind.  It is from the Exodus that Jesus’ re-imagining of the Lord’s Supper finds its power.  But if the Exodus never happened, every part of these crucial and foundational theological truths are built on a lie.

The same is true of the virgin birth.  Dr. Craig responded to his co-host, when challenged, that the virgin birth is absolutely essential to theology, but “We’re not doing theology, we’re doing apologetics.”  Forgetting the apologetic approach of Richard Swinburne, that necessarily links the incarnation to the resurrection, why is it necessary to affirm the virgin birth as part of Christian apologetics?[1]  The argument is very much like that of the Passover.  It is the consistent teaching of the Bible, from Old Testament to New, that humanity is fallen from grace and in a perpetual state of sinfulness.  This position places all of mankind at enmity with God.  From birth, humanity is sinful and separated from God’s grace, which is why there is a need for redemption.  Just as the spotless lamb symbolized the need for a sinless sacrifice during Passover, so too was Jesus to come as the sinless Lamb of God.  If all of mankind is born in sin and Jesus was to be born as fully human, how could he be born without sin, to be the acceptable Savior?  The answer, is the virgin birth.  For Jesus to even be the Savior of the world, he would have to be born from God through a woman who had not known a man sexually.  The oh-so-fundamental resurrection, that Dr. Craig and Pastor Stanley affirm as the one, non-negotiable of the Christian faith is utterly meaningless unless it served the purpose that Jesus said it would, to save the world.  And this would be absolutely impossible if he were not sinless, which was only achievable through the virgin birth.  Thus, you cannot sacrifice the virgin birth for an easy-believism and think that you are still spreading Christianity.

Now of course, those of you that may read this and feel the need to come to either man’s defense will undoubtedly repeat the very words of Dr. Craig to Kevin Harris.  You will state that what I have just engaged in is theology, not apologetics.  To that I would remind you to read what I have written above on the matter, and simply state this,

“If you are engaging in apologetics that is not theological, then you are not engaging in Christian apologetics.”

 

Conclusion

A valid point made by Dr. Craig, and perhaps even behind the intent of Pastor Stanley, is that there are people in the world that will not listen to an argument for Christianity on the basis of the Bible alone.  This is certainly true, and is even illustrated within the pages of the New Testament (Lk.16:19-31), but is also evidenced by the nature of fallen man, in an unregenerate state, who’s heart is opposed to God (Rom. 1:18-23).  And this is where a middle ground must be forged.  As a biblical apologist and one who’s theology follows the Reformation tradition, I differ in many ways with Dr. Craig and Pastor Stanley’s soteriology, however, I do not ridicule the need or practice of evidential apologetics.  Clearly, some who hear the message of God are going to need to see it first in the general revelation around them, and this is best demonstrated through evidential apologetics.

However, evidential apologetics serves no one if it does not ultimately direct the lost back to the Bible.  It is not enough to leave the unbeliever in a state of quasi-deism, accepting that there might likely be a god “out there”; one must point back to the cross.  Neither is it reasonable to jettison every possible Christian doctrine for the sake of making the faith as acceptable as possible, given that, even if they were to be justified, the first things they would learn is that the doctrines they were taught were “non-essential” are, in fact, crucial.  This will result in the new believer having to accept that they were deceived by the pastor/apologist who encouraged them to return to a faith that they abandoned for the very reason that it seemed unreasonable to begin with.  It is becoming increasingly definitional to the realm of evidential apologetics that, if done properly, one must be willing to abandon all necessary doctrines of the Christian faith to sculpt a more reasonable Christianity, holding solely to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the least common denominator.  A definition such as this has in the past led to heresy and, if followed, will ultimately do so again.  I desire to work with my brothers and sisters in Christ that hold to evidential apologetics because I know their sincere desire to serve the risen Lord and reach a lost and dying world, but we cannot reach people with the Truth if we begin by deceiving them about the reality of the Christian faith.

[1] Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

 

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